Ministers to approve bill legalizing police use of facial recognition cameras

Legislation co-sponsored by Yariv Levin and Itamar Ben Gvir will allow police to use monitoring systems to ‘prevent, thwart or uncover serious crimes’

An Israeli technician climbs up a pole to install a surveillance camera on a street in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud on January 24, 2019. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
An Israeli technician climbs up a pole to install a surveillance camera on a street in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud on January 24, 2019. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is set to convene for a special session on Monday, during the Knesset recess, to give preliminary approval for a government-sponsored bill that will legalize police placement of facial recognition cameras in public spaces across Israel and use of the data to investigate criminal activity.

The bill, unveiled in February, is co-sponsored by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the judicial overhaul push by the hardline government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party who has long been gunning for expanded police powers and the use of advanced anti-terror tools deployed by the Shin Bet, primarily in the West Bank, against Israeli criminal suspects.

Hebrew media reported Sunday that the committee will convene Monday to prepare the legislation for Knesset passage.

According to the bill, police will be allowed to deploy the facial recognition technology to “prevent, thwart or uncover serious crime and those involved in planning or carrying it out.” The proposed legislation, once passed, will also retroactively legalize the use of the controversial, unregulated Hawk-Eye program, which can track and identify license plates and determine whether the vehicle was stolen or if its owner’s driver’s license is expired.

The program has no oversight mechanism. In 2020, a police source said that the force has been compiling information on the movements of Israelis not suspected of any crime in a secret database. Police said at the time that the system’s use was “validated by judicial means and used in an orderly fashion when needed.”

The bill is being advanced as part of a legislative effort to combat crime in the Arab community.

A police officer stands guard at a roadblock on a road leading to Ein Hemed, near Jerusalem, on April 28, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Ben Gvir has come under intense criticism for his handling of an alarming uptick in murders in Israel’s Arab communities that have shattered records set over the past few years. According to the Abraham Initiatives anti-violence advocacy group, 174 members of the Arab community, 165 of whom were citizens of Israel, have been killed since the start of the year, mostly in shootings. During the same time frame last year, 77 were killed.

The killings are part of a violent crime wave that has engulfed the Arab community in recent years. Many community leaders blame the police, whom they say have failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations and largely ignore the violence. They also point to decades of neglect and discrimination by government offices as the root cause of the problem.

A number of versions of the facial recognition bill have been floated over the years, including by members of the previous government of ex-premier Naftali Bennett, and as far back as when Tzipi Livni was justice minister in 2013-2014, according to Hebrew media reports on Sunday.

Facial recognition technology has come under greater scrutiny from civil rights activists and regulators worldwide, who say it is biased and infringes on privacy.

The technology, which uses visual images to help computers identify people, is in wide use, from unlocking phones to picking out a suspect’s face at borders or mass gatherings.

According to the Levin-Ben Gvir draft bill, police will be able to deploy the facial recognition cameras at all access roads to and from a given locality with the approval of a senior police officer “provided that [they are] convinced, based on the factual basis presented to [them], that this is necessary for a specific operational purpose, due to a high probability of that serious crimes [can be committed] that endanger the life of a person… public safety or the security of the state.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, right, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin, left, at the Knesset on July 10, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The approval will be given for a period of up to six months, according to the bill, but the senior officer can extend it for another six months. The police will provide annual reports on the use of the technology to the Knesset and the Attorney General.

The deployment of the facial recognition technology “will be for the purpose of preventing, thwarting or detecting serious criminal offenses and detecting those involved in planning or committing serious criminal offenses,” according to the bill.

The Ynet new outlet cited a statement by Levin’s office that said “the minister insists that high-level approvals will be required to use the system, there will be oversight, and the use of the system will only be done for the purposes of fighting serious crime.”

Haaretz reported in February that the data collected by the camera systems may be shared with other government entities that Levin approves, including the State Prosecutor’s Office, the IDF’s intelligence apparatus, and the Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct.

In May, Amnesty International reported that the Israel Defense Forces was increasingly utilizing advanced facial recognition technology to track the movements of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and has been deploying the tech at checkpoints as part of a program that “relies on databases consisting exclusively of Palestinian individuals’ data.”

In response, the Israel Defense Forces said it carries out “necessary security and intelligence operations.”

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